Five ideas show how dining trends are shaping next-generation soft drinks.
This article first appeared in the 1 March 2007 issue of Restaurants & Institutions (R&I).
R&I is the USA's leading source of food and business-trend information and exclusive research on operators and restaurant patrons. Editorial coverage spans the entire foodservice industry, including chains, independent restaurants, hotels and institutions. To find out more about R&I, visit its website here >>
By Allison Perlik, Senior Editor
Shaking the dust from soft-drink menus, forward-thinking operators are developing beverage options with an eye to more than quenching thirst. Novel nonalcoholic drinks, from house-made sodas to flavored colas, encompass the same principles customers expect from kitchens: bold flavors; natural, organic and healthful options; seasonal ingredients; and functional products.
More than a point of differentiation, soft-drink lineups that venture beyond branded cola, lemon-lime soda and root beer make solid business sense. Chicago-based researcher Mintel International Group estimates that retail sales of regular carbonated beverages dropped 4.6% last year, while interest in sports and energy drinks, regular and enhanced bottled waters, and flavored sodas is on the rise.
Consumers' attraction to refreshing alternatives is evident across foodservice segments. Students gulp organic sodas at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst, while diners can opt for such bottled sparkling juices as blueberry-pomegranate at Denver-based Quiznos Sub locations. Even Oak Brook, Ill.-based McDonald's Corp. is exploring its customers' thirst for energy drinks and flavored waters in limited tests.
"Soft drinks are one of the final frontiers of innovation for restaurants," says Peter Gibbons, vice president of product development at Spartanburg, S.C.-based Denny's, which last June introduced Fusion Favorites beverages to spur sales. Recipes such as Berry Banana OJ Fizzle combine fruit-flavored syrups with on-hand products such as orange juice, lemon-lime soda and lemonade.
There are many ways to make a splash with new beverage selections. Here are a few ideas to help stir things up.
Dabble in DIY
Carbonated concoctions mixed to order using house-made and purchased syrups or fresh juices and purées earn high marks from consumers on the trail of fresh, natural and minimally processed products. For Beverage Director Tim Lacey's pink-peppercorn-thyme soda at Green Zebra in Chicago, toasted peppercorns, cardamom, cloves and other spices are steeped with thyme in thin simple syrup; the strained syrup is mixed with soda water to order. In New York City, Yuzu Pop at Sumile Sushi blends soda water, yuzu juice, elderflower syrup and shiso, while burger shop Stand sells blackberry soda made with puréed berries, lime juice, soda water and simple syrup.
Create Custom Combinations
Even without dedicated beverage staff, restaurants can make distinctive soft drinks by blending standard fountain products with flavor-enhancing additions such as syrups and fresh fruit. Kid-friendly Red Robin Gourmet Burgers, based in Greenwood Village, Colo., draws extra attention to "Chillin' Concoctions" such as Freckled Lemonade (featuring sliced strawberries) and Mandarin Orange Limeade by using tornado-shaped glasses. Tampa, Fla.-based chain Cheeseburger in Paradise draws on its expertise in the adult-beverage arena to compose family-friendly libations, including the piÁ±a-colada-inspired Paradise Island, blending coconut and pomegranate syrups, pineapple juice and lemon-lime soda. Most of the creations are juice based, with a splash of soda for a crisp, refreshing finish.
Go Beyond Bubbles
Out-of-the-ordinary juice- and water-based beverages tempt customers looking for drinks sans carbonation. At fast-casual Tender Greens in Culver City, Calif., co-owner Erik Oberholtzer entices guests with a frosty jug behind the cashier displaying seasonal variations of aguas frescas (Mexican-style flavored waters). For a winter recipe, he boils dried hibiscus flowers with filtered water and sugar. The strained mixture is cooled and poured over ice, yielding a fresh taste that's sweet but not cloying. The Culinary Institute of America at Greystone in St. Helena, Calif., stirs up multiple varieties, including one flavored with cucumbers, Cara Cara oranges, lemons, limes and fresh lemon verbena leaves. Natural cane sugar juice adds a slight sweetness. Juice It Up!, an Irvine, Calif.-based chain, reinvents basic fruit and vegetable juices in its Healthy Way line with made-to-order choices such as AppleMint (apple, ginger, lemon and mint) and Caliente Carrot (carrot, tomato and jalapeÁ±o). The company uses liquid invert sugar rather than corn syrup.
Consider Organic Options
Organic beverages rang up $1.9 million in sales in 2005, posting 13.2% growth over the previous year, according to the Organic Trade Association. While such drinks have high menu potential, foodservice has barely scratched the surface. Co-owners Greg Kaminski and Michael Altenberg are getting in the game at organic pizzeria Crust in Chicago. The two partnered with a Louisville, Ky.-based soft-drink developer to create a line of proprietary organic sodas in varieties such as cherry, orange and blueberry pomegranate. The fun flavors aim to please the concept's family demographic and translate into unique cocktails at the bar, Kaminski says. Initially, the product will be dispensed via syrup bags attached to soda guns, but the partners' goal is to open more stores and sell the sodas in bottles.
Finally, Think Function
In an age when a single gadget can be computer, camera and telephone, Americans expect food products to multitask too. Sports/energy drinks represent the fastest-growing nonalcoholic beverage segment, with sales up 69% in 2006 from 2004. Meanwhile, one in three Americans is likely to try a new beverage (such as enhanced water) due to its nutrition benefits, according to Mintel research. Chain menus already find space for such beverages, including Quiznos, Glendale, Calif.-based ESPN Zone and Oklahoma City-based Sonic Drive-In. Colleges are especially fertile ground for sports and energy drinks and vitamin water, says Vicki Dunn, senior director of marketing for Gaithersburg, Md.-based Sodexho's campus-dining division. Such beverages will become increasingly prominent as students move through elementary and high schools where regular soft drinks are prohibited, she says.
Mixologists and beverage managers are putting their signatures on an array of house-made mixers.
- Partner Todd Thrasher of Restaurant Eve and the PX lounge in Alexandria, VA., makes tonic water with quinine, yuzu juice, citric acid and lemon syrup, and concocts cola using cane sugar, citric acid, water and cola nuts. He also freezes ice cubes in flavors such as tonic and kumquat to keep mixed drinks from diluting.
- Bars at Columbus, Ohio-based Cameron Mitchell Restaurants are stocked wth house-made simple syrups and fresh fruits and vegetables. Recipes include the Scorpion, mixed from dark and light rums, brandy, orange and pineapple juices and house-made sour mix.
- At Roux in Portland, ore., Bar Manager Molly Finnegan's grapefruit bitters start with star anise, cinnamon, cardamon, coriander and cloves macerated in grain alcohol. She adds the potent liquid to gin and tonic with a squeeze of lime for The Big Easy cocktail.
- Instead of buying infused alcohols, managing partner Cam Erenler supplies h is own flavors for sweet vodka martinis at Pera Mediterranean Brassseries in New York City. The apricot, strawberry and tart cherry syrups are inspired by his mother's recipes.
What Beverages Do Consumers Want to See on Menus?
At both full-service and limited-service restaurants, significant percentages of diners say they are interested in having expanded beverage choices.